CIUDAD JUÁREZ, Mexico - Mexico’s drug cartels are now recruiting American citizens almost exclusively to smuggle drugs across the U.S. border, in a fresh measure that is a response to COVID restrictions.
And the strategy seems to be working. Despite the lockdown, seizures of some illicit drugs across the border have increased and business is healthy, if not booming, for Mexico’s powerful drug trafficking organizations.
In March, the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump implemented restrictions on the land border with Mexico that only allow non-U.S citizens to cross for essential travel purposes. Northbound traffic from Mexico is down by between 60 to 70 percent since March, according to Customs and Border Protection (CBP). The restrictions will remain in place at least until late November.
“It is harder [to move drugs over the border], that’s for sure, and more expensive, but we are making it work,” said a smuggler who works with the Sinaloa Cartel interviewed by VICE News.
Since Mexico and the United States both agreed to limit land border crossings between the two nations, except for essential trips, the number of Mexicans and foreigners entering the United States from Mexico has fallen dramatically. But on the Mexican side of the border, that rule is not being enforced and Americans are largely able to come and go as they please.
Some 90 percent of recent apprehensions for smuggling drugs at ports of entry along the international line were U.S. citizens, according to new figures from CBP. Last year, that figure was significantly less at around 70 percent.
“Because of the travel restrictions, for the most part, only U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents are allowed to cross at the ports. So of course those are the groups that will be apprehended smuggling,” CBP spokesman Roger Maier told VICE News in a statement.
More drugs have been seized along the border in the first nine months of this year than for the whole of 2019. CBP seized just under 694,000 pounds of drugs during 2020, compared to 680, 358 pounds for the whole of 2019, according to figures sent to VICE News by the agency.
The Sinaloa Cartel operative, who asked not to be identified, said his organization has introduced some new rules.
“We are sending more people with smaller quantities to avoid getting a big hit,” he said, referring to the risk of having drugs confiscated via seizures by law enforcement.
“The busts have grown, we are taking a lot of busts at the (international) bridges, but we also have another trick. We are relying 100% on U.S. citizens to smuggle for us.”
These smugglers, he explained, cross into Mexico from the U.S. to pick up the drugs and then head back north over the border.
“The same brokers that buy the drugs from us in the U.S. are helping us recruit gringos [Americans],” he said.
Law enforcement in Mexico is seeing the same trend. Over the last month, there has been a “significant increase” in the number of detentions of U.S. citizens on Mexican soil involved in drug trafficking, said César Augusto Peniche, the attorney general for Chihuahua, in which Ciudad Juárez sits. In September alone, 36 American citizens were arrested in Ciudad Juárez with more than 450 pounds of different types of drugs, said Peniche. During the same month in 2019, police arrested nine American citizens for drugs, according to Chihuahua’s General Attorney Office.
Many U.S. citizens recruited by the cartels are new to this type of work, said Victor M. Manjarrez, a former CBP chief in Tucson and El Paso, and now associate director of the Law and Human Behavior department at the University of Texas.
“These people have some of the cleanest criminal records in the U.S., they’re not criminals, but of course cartels are taking advantage of the times,” he said, referring to the high unemployment rates as a consequence of the pandemic.
Until COVID restrictions on the border lift, American citizens look likely to be the favored vessels for drugs on their way into the U.S.